As a coach for creative types, I have come across a lot of multi-talented artists who tie themselves up in knots, trying to figure out just what one thing to focus on.
I can relate to that. I used to agonize over whether I wanted to focus on writing or music when I was 19 or 20 years old. As a writer, I have spent more time than I’d care to admit grappling with the question, ‘Just what type of writer do I want to be?’ And one of the big reasons I resisted starting a blog for over 10 years was that I was afraid it would get in my way or sap my energy, as a fiction writer.
But what if you didn’t have to focus on only one thing? Several successful artists have proved that you don’t.
The first who comes to mind is Jean Cocteau. He started out as a poet, moved into theatre, drawing, and set design— before writing novels and directing films.
I’m most familiar with his films, and they are extraordinary. The original Beauty and the Beast, for example, is one of my favorite 10 films of all time. To see it on youtube— though only the big screen truly does it justice— check out this link. His first movie The Blood of a Poet mixed his multiple talents to create something truly singular in the annals of cinema, even to this day.
Another artist who comes to mind for me is Jacques Prévert. He is one of my two favorite poets, and he sold 2 million copies of Paroles, his first book of poetry. I have always responded on a visceral level to his sort of raw, simple, yet deceptively rich style and use of language.
Prévert, though, is just as well-known as a screenwriter, having written the defining movies of the poetic realism film genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Some consider his opus The Children of Paradise to be the best film ever made. One of the most iconic and oft-quoted lines from a French film (at least, in France) came from another film he wrote— Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows).
And yet Prévert did more— he wrote and directed for his own theatre troupe, he co-created animated films, and he made collages. His book Fatras mixed in poetry, collage, and drawing— in a way that was pretty unique within the French literary canon, at the time.
A slightly different sort of example of an artist who has worked in multiple artistic idioms is Joni Mitchell. She is, of course, rightly known as a folk and rock legend with an inimitable voice and songwriting style.
However, she has also painted throughout her life. In fact, she has been quoted as saying, “I’m a painter first, and a musician second…” What is different about her, though, is that unlike Cocteau and Prévert, she has only enjoyed widespread acclaim and success in a single idiom— her music. Nonetheless, according to Joni Mitchell, her painting and music engage different aspects of her creativity, and when she feels blocked musically, she paints to unblock herself (and vice versa).
What these artists have in common
So, why do I mention these artists?
Because I think there is something valuable we can learn from the three of them. Rather than spending time choosing which artistic genre to pursue, they chose not to overthink it. Rather than thinking of their creativity as a ‘zero sum’ game with a finite limit, they had faith that creative expression would breed more creative expression. And most of all, they all just followed wherever their creative inspiration took them— not only over the course of their lives, but also during the course of a day.
So, how does it relate to you?
What about you?
Do you ever find yourself engaging in ‘zero-sum’ thinking? Do you block yourself from expressing all sides of your creativity or tell yourself you need to focus on only one artistic idiom?
Or do you keep yourself from learning new skills, from taking new jobs, from following your gut and taking your life in a new direction— because, you tell yourself, you can’t be ‘flaky’ or look like you’re ‘all over the place’ to a future employer, or to yourself?
Every day, we do small things to reinforce this ‘scarcity’ mentality— that there is only so much creative energy to go around for each person.
So, try this exercise.
Give the doubting, critical voice that tries to moderate your creativity and inspiration a one-hour break.
Now, imagine that there is no finite limit to expressing your creativity and inspiration— whether it is through your work, your art, or the rest of your life. Get a clear picture and let your imagination go where it may.
Write down on the left side of a sheet of paper what you would be doing, what you would learn, and what you would not do.
Now, write down on the right side of the paper how you imagine yourself feeling doing each of these things.
Now, reflect on what came out of this exercise. Were there any surprises, or did this remind you of something you already knew?
Finally, make a plan to incorporate whatever you haven’t been doing on the left side of the paper. That plan can range from scheduling a time to do these things to promising to allow yourself to pursue these activities the next time you feel inspired to do so.
To make sure you follow through on your plan, find a way to remind yourself of what you wrote down on the right side of your paper, in your day-to-day life— maybe it’s sticky notes in strategic places around the house, maybe it’s carrying around some picture or image that serves as a reminder to you, or maybe it’s something else.
Conclusion— Miles runs the voodoo down
It’s funny— as I began writing this, I realized that my mental image of creativity is a Miles Davis music video that I saw in the 1980s— Tutu Medley— which was directed by Spike Lee. In the video, Miles Davis plays his trumpet, paints, and in general, looks like a total bad-ass (in that 1980’s sort of way).
Now, is it the absolute best music or painting ever produced? Probably not—not even by Miles’ standards. But in the video, Miles is so totally free, so totally spontaneous, and so unafraid to take a shot on his art and what he wants to do in his life. And to me, that seems like the most exhilarating way to live.
I think you’ll find the same.